For Lucy, a 59-year-old metastatic breast cancer patient from Washington state, getting vaccinated against COVID-19 was a matter of life and death. After undergoing aggressive chemotherapy for months, the coronavirus almost certainly would have killed her. Yet as relief washed over her upon receiving her final Pfizer dose in March, she knew she’d have to keep it to herself. Her husband had begged her not to get the shot.
At the outset of the pandemic, Lucy’s husband and partner of seven years, Shane, was as cautious as anyone about the virus. He kept a big container of hand sanitizer in the car and fanatically washed his hands, keys and other items. He wore a face mask everywhere he went, showered and changed his clothes immediately upon returning home from necessary outings, and was anxious for Lucy and her elderly mother, who lives with them, to get vaccinated as soon as possible due to their heightened vulnerabilities.
But as the crisis dragged on, 60-year-old Shane spent months cooped up inside on YouTube and Facebook, where a vortex of coronavirus conspiracy theory videos was waiting for him. Many declared that the virus was nothing to fear — that it was the vaccines he should really be afraid of. Before long, he was also tuning into the increasingly malicious disinformation networks Newsmax and OAN, which regularly rehashed the lies he’d been fed online. He was completely enthralled, Lucy said, and over time, his worldview “did a 180.”
Among other delusions, Shane is now steadfastly convinced that the COVID-19 outbreak was orchestrated by government-allied forces, the coronavirus is no more harmful than the flu, and the vaccines alter recipients’ DNA — condemning them to slowly perish.
Shane also believes that those who’ve been vaccinated can “shed” deadly toxins onto unvaccinated people in their vicinity. He fled the house when one of Lucy’s vaccinated adult sons from her previous marriage came to visit around Memorial Day of this year. Since returning more than a week afterward, he has confined himself to the basement and insisted that Lucy’s children never come back, lest they “shed.”
He still doesn’t know Lucy is immunized; she hides her vaccine card in a safety deposit box.
“Everything fell apart last year,” said Lucy, who also snuck her mother out to get her shots behind Shane’s back. “I don’t even know who he is anymore.”
Shane is among the millions of Americans who have fallen prey to the coronavirus “infodemic” — the maelstrom of false and misleading information about COVID-19 that has gone viral during the pandemic, drastically hindering the nation’s recovery. Hyper-politicized anti-vaccine propaganda has reached countless U.S. households — largely by way of Fox News, far-right media outlets, GOP lawmakers and right-wing influencers — as terrifying conspiracy theories about the vaccines’ supposed lethality and nefarious development spread like wildfire across social media.
The COVID-19 vaccines have become a symbol of America’s culture wars, and the consequences are deadly. More than 99% of coronavirus-related deaths in the U.S. occur among unvaccinated people, yet even though the shots have been widely available in all 50 states for months, nearly half the population hasn’t received a single dose.
Research shows that social relationships may play a key role in keeping some people from getting vaccinated. In May, the American Enterprise Institute’s Survey Center on American Life found only 28% of Republicans reported receiving any encouragement from family and friends to get the vaccine, and more — 1 in 3 — reported actually being discouraged by friends and family, or receiving mixed messages. Only 45% of Republicans have received at least one vaccine dose, compared to 86% of Democrats.
Lucy’s story may only be unusual in the sense that she still got the vaccine — making the logical decision to protect herself against a virus that has killed more than 600,000 Americans — despite her family pressures. For many in her position, the choice to betray a loved one’s trust in order to prioritize their own health isn’t easy, and may come at a great personal cost.
“He said if I take the vaccine I could pack my bags and leave his kids here.”
HuffPost talked to five men and women whose marriages are crumbling or have already collapsed under the weight of viral anti-vaccine disinformation. Most said they did their best to tolerate their spouses’ embrace of conspiracy theories amid the pandemic — until it came to the vaccines, when those delusions suddenly posed a direct threat to their well-being or that of their children. All were pressured by their partners not to get immunized (though most managed to do so in secret anyway), and are identified by pseudonyms to protect their families’ privacy. Three, including Lucy, are now in the process of getting divorced.
“I don’t understand what happened to him,” Lucy said of Shane. “But I choose my health.”
The Q Factor
As the coronavirus swept across the U.S., so did QAnon, with anti-vaccine hysteria emerging center stage in its extraordinary fear-mongering campaign. The far-right conspiracy theory movement hinges upon the belief that former President Donald Trump has quietly been at war against an omnipotent cabal of “deep-state” pedophiles who do all kinds of wicked things — from eating children to unleashing a highly infectious virus to manufacture a global need for a secretly deadly vaccine. (The latter is all part of a mass depopulation scheme cooked up by billionaire philanthropist Bill Gates and his fellow cabal members, of course.)
QAnon rode COVID-19 to new heights, conjuring up its own twisted narratives behind the pandemic while exploiting the widespread fear and uncertainty to indoctrinate more people. A staggering 15% of Americans have adopted the movement’s core beliefs, according to recent polling by the Public Religion Research Institute. For many, QAnon’s wild anti-vaccine conspiracy theories have left them completely petrified.
Carrie, a woman in her mid-40s who lives in the Southwest, met Anthony 12 years ago. They had a lot in common: Both had young children from earlier marriages, were around the same age and were generally fun, friendly and easy-going people. They married three years later.
Anthony was a Trump supporter but had never been very politically engaged, nor had he ever shown any interest in conspiracy theories. That changed in February of this year when he tested positive for COVID-19 and was almost entirely unaffected. During the two weeks he spent in complete isolation post-diagnosis, he heard repeatedly on social media that the virus wasn’t actually killing people and that the death tolls had been fabricated — QAnon theories that seemed to be supported by his own mild, cold-like symptoms. (It’s common for coronavirus cases to be mild or asymptomatic.)
Up until that point, the entire family had been very cautious about COVID-19, and Anthony began to feel foolish for having been so afraid. It was the catalyst for his nosedive down the Q rabbit hole, where he absorbed all kinds of QAnon falsehoods. Soon, he was telling Carrie and the kids that President Joe Biden and his cronies had stolen the election from Trump, there was a Democrat-run child sex ring under the White House, the pandemic was a hoax, and everyone who got any of the COVID-19 vaccines would be dead within two years.
“I think my husband has lost his mind,” said Carrie, who tried tirelessly to debunk his delusions until she eventually accepted that no amount of logic or evidence would sway him. “How does someone go from being a normal human to being so crazy?”
It’s a question that families across the country are asking about their loved ones who rattle off conspiracy theories when explaining why they refuse to get vaccinated against the coronavirus. Conspiratorial narratives about the supposedly malicious interests of key figures and institutions surrounding vaccines are now causing just as much vaccine skepticism as safety concerns are, according to a report from First Draft, a global nonprofit that researches misinformation.
“She thinks the doctors are in on it, that they’re part of Big Pharma and they’re working together behind the COVID ‘hoax.’”
Carrie didn’t understand how her husband could buy into these anti-vaccine delusions while still supporting Trump, whose administration launched Operation Warp Speed, a COVID-19 vaccine development and distribution program. Trump has also strongly encouraged Americans to go out and get immunized. Anthony’s explanation was mind-boggling.
“Trump is lying because he’s trying to take down this global cabal of pedophiles and he’s just trying to throw us off,” Carrie recalled him telling her — a refrain repeated widely in QAnon circles. “It’s so we don’t see what he’s really doing because he’s trying to save the world.”
Anthony wept when he learned that Carrie had snuck out to get vaccinated, convinced not only that his wife was doomed to die in the near future, but also, bizarrely, that she’d been injected with HIV. He wouldn’t have sex with her until she got tested for the disease and showed him her negative result. He broke down again when she later informed him that she’d taken her eligible biological children to get their vaccines, then sent her a written notice explicitly threatening to divorce her if she ever got their shared eight-year-old daughter immunized against the virus.
“He thinks I’m murdering our kids. He believes it hook, line and sinker — I don’t know how he makes it through the day,” said Carrie, who told him, sarcastically, “At least you’ll be alive for the remaining children.” By then, Anthony had latched onto the “shedding” theory.
“We’ll all be dead, too,” he replied.
Inside The Anti-Vaccine Echo Chamber
For Harrison, a 52-year-old husband and father from Michigan, social media is a tool to stay connected with friends and family from afar, and has been especially useful through the COVID-19 lockdowns. To Fiona, his wife of 20 years, it has become her go-to source for news — and medical advice.
Much of Fiona’s day is spent on YouTube, where an echo chamber of QAnon influencers and other far-right conspiracy theorists fill her head with baseless claims of corruption behind the “plandemic” and warn her about the supposed dangers of the coronavirus vaccines. Pointing to videos on the platform and other social media sites, including Facebook, Instagram, Parler and Bitchute, she has told Harrison that the virus is nothing serious and the shots are used to inject people with some kind of poison. His attempts to steer her toward credible sources have been futile, and he often finds himself wondering how long they can go on like this.
“I had even tossed out to her, ‘Have you talked to one of our doctors about it face-to-face, taking social media out of it?’” recalled Harrison, who secretly got his Moderna shots in March and April. “But she thinks the doctors are in on it, that they’re part of Big Pharma and they’re working together behind the COVID ‘hoax.’ That’s what she hears online over and over and over again.”
One of QAnon’s greatest and most damaging accomplishments has been eroding the public’s trust in legitimate information sources at a time of crisis. Building off Trumpworld’s crusade against the “fake news media,” its network of disinformation spreaders has successfully painted the mainstream media, liberal politicians and government institutions including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention as corrupt and unreliable. As a result, people have increasingly turned to social media platforms to get their news, where grifters abound and facts don’t matter.
“The day I figured out I definitely had to go was when I was sneaking out to get my vaccine and felt like it would have been better had I been seeing another woman.”
Social media has been a breeding ground for coronavirus conspiracy theories, with platforms not only hosting disinformation but actively driving users toward it via algorithmic recommendations while turning a profit. “Plandemic,” a conspiracy theory film in which a widely discredited medical researcher called vaccines “a money-making enterprise that causes medical harm” and suggested they will “kill millions,” racked up millions of views across social platforms almost overnight last May.
Anti-vaccine hysteria can be especially lucrative for opportunistic hucksters who shill supposed immunity-boosting alternatives, information packages and coronavirus “cures” on social media — and who often benefit from algorithmic amplification and sometimes earn a cut of the ad revenue they generate. Just 12 influencers are responsible for nearly two-thirds of anti-vaccine content across social media, according to a report from the Center for Countering Digital Hate.
In the online attention economy, the more polarizing a post is — like the anti-vaccine propaganda that Shane, Anthony and Fiona have been binging to the dismay of their spouses — the more likely it is to drive high engagement. Platforms notoriously reward such content by further boosting its visibility, which can keep users active longer and increase their exposure to ads. This may not seem like a big deal for flat Earth-type conspiracy theories, but with vaccine-related disinformation, the stakes are extraordinarily high.
Fiona, 51, is overweight, and Harrison worries about what might happen to her if she catches COVID-19. They have a nine-year-old son together, and he has started repeating his mother’s falsehoods. But if Fiona got sick, only then, Harrison suspects, would she realize that the “intel” she consumes on social media is nonsense.
“There’s gonna be no convincing her until it affects her directly,” he said of his wife. “I just hope it doesn’t come to that.”
Mainstreaming Vaccine Hysteria
For the past several months, Hannah’s home has been a literal anti-vax megaphone. Her husband, Rick, has set up speakers around the exterior to blast COVID-19 vaccine conspiracy theory videos out to neighbors, passersby and anyone who will listen. A hard-line Christian conservative, he’s been known to do public Bible readings in an effort to convert people, but lately, he’s been preaching coronavirus trutherism to turn them into anti-vaxxers.
He wasn’t always like this. Hannah, 38, met Rick when she was a senior in high school. He was four years older, and at six-foot-two, he towered over her with more than a foot between them. She liked his blue-green eyes and the way he dressed, like he was in a boy band. They married a few years later and now live on the West Coast with their two daughters, who are 9 and 5. Both received all of their regular childhood vaccines and annual flu shots — until the pandemic hit.
That was when Rick, like so many other Americans, suddenly decided the coronavirus shots contained secret location-tracking microchips and were designed to kill people en masse. When his wife mentioned that she was planning to get vaccinated, he threatened divorce.
“Not only does he not want me to get [the vaccine], he wants me to tell everyone I know not to get it,” said Hannah, who secretly got her Pfizer shots on her way to pick the girls up from day care in April and May. “I sat there thinking to myself, ‘I guess I’m getting divorced.’”
While Rick’s vaccine beliefs are extreme and ludicrous, the underlying current of fear and suspicion is regularly reinforced on his TV screen. His media diet includes Fox News, OAN and Newsmax, whose hosts have likened vaccine passports to racial segregation, denigrated door-to-door vaccine efforts as “creepy,” declared that the Biden administration’s focus on vaccination is “mind-boggling” and argued that vaccines are “against nature.” The effect is clear: Just 3 in 10 people who watch Newsmax or OAN are “vaccine accepters,” according to a study from PRRI.
“If we had had the pushback for vaccines the way we’re seeing on certain media, I don’t think it would have been possible at all to not only eradicate smallpox, we probably would still have smallpox and we probably would still have polio in this country,” Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s leading infectious-disease expert, recently told CNN.
But it’s not just right-wing media outlets that are ushering anti-vaccine propaganda into the mainstream. Republican lawmakers are also normalizing baseless vaccine skepticism. Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-Colo.) dubbed Biden’s vaccine staff “needle Nazis”; Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) compared them to Hitler’s “brownshirts.”
Hannah suspects this only reaffirms Rick’s views, which have grown increasingly alarming.
“Last night [Rick] sent me a video about the vaccine and how it has aborted fetuses in it, I said I didn’t believe it,” she wrote in her online journal in December. “He said if I take the vaccine I could pack my bags and leave his kids here.”
Rick’s anti-vax delusions have been a “breaking point” for their relationship. Hannah is overweight and her daughters have lung and heart issues; all three are at high risk for complications from COVID-19. She wants to get the girls vaccinated as soon they’re eligible, but knows Rick would never be OK with it — and it would be impossible to hide from him.
“He cares about people, he really does. He has a good heart,” she said. “But I want to be separated so that I can get [my daughters] a vaccine.”
‘He Lost Me’
As James rolled up his sleeve and felt the pinch of his first Pfizer shot in early April, he knew his marriage was over.
“The day I figured out I definitely had to go was when I was sneaking out to get my vaccine and felt like it would have been better had I been seeing another woman,” said the 54-year-old Washington state resident. “I couldn’t believe it was something I had to hide.”
His wife, Alina, had been fiercely opposed to vaccines since watching the viral 2016 anti-vaccine film “Vaxxed,” which pushes the debunked lie that vaccines cause autism. But over the past three years, as she became engrossed with QAnon conspiracy theories on YouTube, in private Facebook groups and elsewhere on social media, her reasons for hating vaccines became increasingly irrational. She’d send him hundreds of videos and articles claiming vaccines were part of a sinister plot to establish a new world order, and he’d stay up for hours into the night doing research to disprove them. It never made a difference.
“I loved her completely,” James said. “My theory was that if I loved her enough and supported her, she’d come back.”
During the pandemic, Alina started protesting against the lockdowns and vaccines — unconcerned about contracting the virus — and refused to let her teenage sons from a previous marriage go back to school when in-person classes resumed because she was afraid that face masks, which were mandated, would harm them.
She moved into their family cabin in the woods, where she would host anti-vaccine meetups with dozens of people, so she could grow a vegetable garden, raise chickens and stockpile food to prepare for “the end times.” James’ children, also from a previous marriage, were increasingly embarrassed by their stepmother.
To James, it felt like the sweet, caring woman he’d fallen in love with was turning into a stranger before his eyes, and he was losing hope of ever breaking through to her. They filed for divorce in late April, weeks after James got his first vaccine dose behind Alina’s back.
Soon after filing, James confessed via text to getting the shot.
“We had no future indeed,” Alina replied.
“She lost a partner who cared greatly for her,” James said. “One of our last arguments was, ‘Are you really going to throw all this away for these unsupported theories?’ Basically, she responded that she’s willing to die for this. That made it a lot easier to walk away.”
For Lucy, the metastatic breast cancer patient, her husband’s blind faith in baseless anti-vaccine conspiracy theories is also what pushed her to pursue divorce. Shane, like Alina, believes the vaccine is lethal and did everything in his power to prevent Lucy from getting it, even as her cancer treatment grew more aggressive, devastating her immune system.
“He says I can’t get vaccinated because he doesn’t want to lose me,” Lucy said of her soon-to-be ex. “He lost me anyway.”